Vision Quest Structures
by Lawrence Loendorf, Archaeologist
The vision quest is the practice of praying and fasting to obtain a guardian spirit power. It was, and still is, practiced by Indians across western North America but there are few groups that put more emphasis on the vision quest ritual than the Crow Indians of Montana (Conner 1982). In fact, there are abundant and important archaeological remnants of the vision quest in the Pryor Mountains that testify to a long ceremonial tradition.
The acquisition of a guardian spirit helper followed a time-honored procedure across western America that was most commonly practiced by adolescent males. First the supplicant purified in a sweat bath. This was followed by smudging or lighting a pungent-smelling herb to create incense smoke that was passed over the body. Crow Indians often used dried “ise” or bear root for their purifying smudge. It was important to remove the human smell from the body so the “without fires” (the name used by the Crow for the spirits) would not be afraid. When the cleansing was complete the individual went to an isolated place to fast and pray for a visit from a guardian spirit. The praying might last for four days and nights while the supplicant went without food, water, or fire. Deprivation enhanced the trance state. In the olden days, the individual might practice self-mutilation to increase his susceptibility to a guardian spirit. Crow Indians usually cut off part of a finger to offer to the spirits as their penitence. Occasionally a young man would pierce his chest and attach thongs to drag a weighty buffalo skull. When the skull snagged in the brush it would tear loose to leave bleeding wounds on the man’s chest.
If the supplicant were fortunate, he received a visit from a guardian spirit. This visit might begin with a “little person” appearing to him while he was in trance. The little person would act as a go between who led the man on a journey into another world where he would be introduced to the supernatural spiritual forces. There he would receive his power, perhaps from an eagle, a bison or a bear. He would also be taught a medicine song and told to construct a bundle to hold talismans or sacred objects that were to be brought forth when he needed to call upon his spirit helper.Crow Indians also constructed a fasting bed or a rock and wood structure that served as the place to rest during their quest. Archaeologists use the name “vision quest structures” for these rock and wood features. The structures are frequently constructed right on the edge of precipitous cliffs with drop-offs of hundreds of feet.
There are two main types of structures. One is an elongated u-shaped feature made with stacked rock walls that are usually one to two feet high, two feet wide and four feet long. This variety almost always opens to the east where Ihkale’axe, the bright star or Morning Star rises.The second variety is coffin-shaped with walls about four feet long, two feet high with sufficient width for a person to lie down. These “nest-like” features usually have the long-axis oriented east to west so the petitioner can face the Morning Star. Many of the structures, especially the coffin-shaped ones have wood incorporated into them. In some cases this wood may have been part of a roof or cover for the structure.
In his exceptional book on Crow astronomy, Timothy McCleary (2012:33) informs us that Crow visionaries consider the Morning Star to be important because it appears in the sky at the “dark face time” or the holiest moment of the night. It was a time when a person was most likely to receive a vision because the Creator was close to the earth. Based on interviews with Crow elders, McCleary suggests that Sirius is the Crow Morning Star.The Place Where They Fast or ammilisshíissaannuua is a well-known vision quest location in the Pryor Mountains. Whites know the location as the Castle Rocks on the south side of Pryor Gap. Highly respected Crow Indians like Two Leggings and Plain Feather fasted on Castle Buttes and Plenty Coups had a portion of one of his visions near these rocks. The Castle Rocks are on the Crow Reservation and accessible only by Crow people but they are easy to see from the town of Pryor or from the old railroad grade that goes through the Gap. This road remains blocked on the east side of the Gap but it is still in use from the west. Vision quest structures are found on other standing rock spires, similar to the Castle Rocks, but at locations away from the mountains. Three of the structures are found on a site named Spirit Spire by the archaeological field crew that found it in 1968 below Red Pryor Mountain. This site has low rock walls on the ends of the outcrop, a feature that is also found at other vision quest sites and suggests that the fasters were trying to direct or control the spiritual access to the site.
It is relatively common to find multiple vision quest structures on the same outcrop. Sometimes three or four young men went on a quest together, as in the example of Plenty Coups when he first fasted in the Crazy Mountains (Linderman 2002:32-33). In this example, the multiple fasting beds may have been made by a group of individuals at the same time. There are other examples where a supplicant built a second structure where one existed previously. It is also important to recognize that an individual might return to a vision quest structure on a second or third occasion to renew their power or to pray for guidance at a pivotal time in their life.
Dryhead Overlook on East Pryor Mountain was a favorite Crow Indian vision quest area that was known as “Where They Saw the Rope”. Once in the long ago past, when the Crow were camped on upper Dryhead Creek, they looked up to the rim and saw a man in his vision quest. The man was dragging a buffalo skull with ropes that were attached with skewers to the muscles in his back. The Crow say that the blood running down the ropes glistened in the sun and this is “Where They Saw the Rope.”As recently as the 1960’s there were six or seven prominent vision quest structures at Dryhead Overlook. Highly-respected Plains archaeologist Waldo Wedel photographed one of these structures in 1952 while he was on an outing with the Powell Rock Club (Wedel 1961:265-266). Local tradition at the time was that the structures were the remains of signal fires, but Wedel rightly concluded they were fasting beds for Crow visionaries. Unfortunately after 1966 when the U. S. Forest Service constructed the good access road into the Pryors, these structures started to disappear one stone at a time as people threw them off the cliff for the fun of it (Conner 1982:108).
Other regional sites with vision quest structures include the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. The region surrounding the medicine wheel was recognized as a place where visionaries might receive power. Interestingly, the wheel was used by Crow Indians for vision quest structures. If you visit the site today, you can still see the u-shaped rock structures incorporated into the spokes of the wheel.
Another fascinating stone structure is found near the top of the Grand Tetons. It is an elliptical-shaped stone feature made of slabs of rock that have been pulled out of the rocky matrix to create a nest-like feature. It is often attributed to the Shoshone but this may not be correct because the Shoshone did not normally make fasting beds on their vision quests. A favored place for Shoshone vision quests was at rock art sites. We know that Wyoming sites like Dinwoody and Legend Rock are related to the Shoshone. However, there are no stone structures at these sites.
Vision quest structures on top of Red Eagle Mountain and Medicine Peak in Glacier National Park, as well as other stone structures on high mountains in Alberta were probably made by Blackfoot visionaries (Dormaar 2003). Other tribes likely also made some of the vision quest structures in Montana, but the greatest concentration of these features is in the Pryors where they are unquestionably attributed to the Crow Indians. Indeed, these structures may be the most significant cultural resource in the Pryor Mountains.
1982 Archaeology of the Crow Indian Vision Quest. Archaeology in Montana 23(3): 85-128. Publication of the Montana Archaeological Society.
2003 Archaeology and geography of vision quest sites. Pp. 188-207 in Archaeology in Alberta: A View from the New Millennium, edited by Jack W. Brink and John F. Dormaar. The Archaeological Society of Alberta, Medicine Hat, Alberta.
2002 Plenty-Coups Chief of the Crows. (New edition originally published in 1930) University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London.
2012 The Stars We Know: Crow Indian Astronomy and Lifeways. (New edition originally published in 1997) Waveland Press, Long Grove, Illinois.
1961 Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.